When The Greatest finally arrived Thursday inside the Warner Brothers Studio Store at Lenox Square, it was The Saddest, but only for a moment. You can only cringe so long for a moment. You can only cringe so long at the sight of Muhammad Ali creeping through a crowed with baby steps. Worse, his hands trembled enough to make you wonder if they'll snap from his wrists someday.
None of this mattered to the masses, though. Something wonderful always happens when Ali is around to make you see his magic instead of his misery despite the Parkinson's disease that has turned into moving statue.
On this evening, while Ali headed to the back of the store to greet those waiting to see the unveiling of limited edition paintings of himself as an Olympic gold medalist, he recognized a sport columnist from the past. Ali stopped, shot daggers from his eyes once reserved for Joe Frazier and winked slowly while delivering a hearty enough handshake to prove he still could go a around or three when the disease cooperates.
Muhammad Ali is the most recognizable person on earth, and he was visiting our half of the universe. If you didn't know better, you'd have thought everybody from both halves was inside the mall to hug him, kiss him, to touch him." Seeing Muhammad Ali in person,", says Steve Kaufman, the Andy Warhol's protégé who did Ali paintings that go for $2,000 a piece, "is like seeing the Pope."
No this is bigger. The Pope doesn't have women of all ages screaming things in his direction such as. "You're still gorgeous."
Others among the two hundred or so invited quests for this occasion chanted, "Ali, Ali. Ali" or "champ, champ, champ" as Ali stood with Kaufman in front of some of the eight paintings whose centerpiece is a fresh-faced Cassius Clay wearing an Olympic blazer for Team USA in 1960. In addition, each painting shows Ali during one of his Olympic
bouts along the way to gold. Says Kaufman, of his attractive work that also features on each painting one of the few times Ali has signed both his given name and his Muslim name, "He's like a giant rainbow. To paint Muhammad Ali, I had to use the most brilliant colors I could think of."
Rainbows don't speak, and neither did Ali, who spent the bulk of his two hours at the store sitting behind a table, mugging for photos with those passing by in an orderly line and handing out three pieces of personally autographed pamphlets on Islam. Middle-age-women kissed Ali on the lips, then danced away like a schoolgirl. A guy had a friend snap a picture of himself and Ali trading phony jabs and then the guy said emotionally, "This means a lot to my mother." There also were the kids, some wide-eyed while shaking Ali's hand and others wide-eyed while staring from the distance.
Then Ali was gone, moving into the night to deliver more Islamic pamphlets to those rushing his way. Mostly, he was delivering something more intriguing Himself.